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Weird? Eccentric? Miraculous? Looking back at Fortean TV: The Complete Series

Hosted by the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, Fortean TV presented stories of the strange and supernatural to a primetime audience. Jennifer Wallis looks back.
Face of the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe peering out from tomatoes.
Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe among the tomatoes.

MANY BRITISH VIEWERS will have fond memories of the animated credits of a certain TV show on Channel 4 between 1997 and 1998: a fish with glamorous chorus-girl legs, an iguana-headed businessman, and saucepan lid flying saucers. Hosted by the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, Fortean TV was a kind of televised version of Fortean Times magazine, presenting strange and supernatural tales for a primetime audience. Happily, it finally received a DVD release with Network in late 2022, with a 3-disc set containing the entire series, four Uncut episodes (original episodes with extra segments originally judged too outré for a general audience), and the Christmas special.

Fortean TV ran the gamut from the appalling to the ridiculous. In one of the Fortean TV Uncut episodes included on this release, we are introduced to the Denver-based Abundant Life Church. Their Halloween ‘exhibit’ anticipates the later popularity of immersive horror experiences, but here the axe-wielding psychos and zombies are replaced with right-wing religious nuts whose views are akin to those of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Church’s ‘Hell House’ experience invited audiences to witness such scenes as a gay man dying from AIDS and a teenage girl having an abortion, all enhanced with gallons of fake blood and fire-and-brimstone speeches from church members dressed as Satan. Other segments in the Uncut episodes recall 90s alt/fetish mag Bizarre rather than Fortean Times, including ‘The Human Garbage Can’ exhibition, a collection of foreign bodies that have been removed from people, and the irrepressible Gunther von Hagens of Body Worlds.

Lady holding a cat
This and other images taken from Fortean TV.

More reassuringly nostalgic are the closer-to-home encounters of Fortean TV viewers. I had completely forgotten about these segments: dramatizations of real-life encounters with the paranormal that, in their mundanity, are often the creepiest sections of the programme. Couples and families sit in their living rooms, slumped on beige sofas, as they recount what happened to them — such as an elderly couple on their way to Wales who spot a sinister hooded figure on the edge of a dual carriageway. There’s enough humour (whether intentional or unintentional) to diffuse any threat. “We ended up in Hastings, didn’t we?” one woman says to her husband, sitting next to her. “We did, yes,” he replies, with the weary aura of a man who has become little more than a prop for his wife’s anecdotes. The irreverent dubbing of interviews is also an inspired comedic touch, as blunt Northern voices recount the stories of men in Taiwan and China.

Frog in green, murky liquid.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how far the producers were taking the piss, and whether participants were fully committed to what they said on camera. A man talks to a psychic vet about his dog — “I’d like to know how she feels about her knees” — and in Coventry a man builds a shrine to a pork scratching in the shape of the Virgin Mary.

Alongside the comedy elements, there are some genuinely interesting snippets of Forteana, some of them topics that have been well-mined in subsequent years, some of them less remembered. In the very first episode, we encounter some of the Fortean classics: Fiji mermaids and the Chupacabra. But there are also less glamorous, equally intriguing, features I’d forgotten about — such as ‘sliders’, people who supposedly cause streetlights to turn on and off as they pass, and who were studied in depth by librarian Hilary Evans. And a story about a supermarket checkout linked to an unusually large number of shopgirl pregnancies — as I watched the episode back-to-back with the ‘Special Offer’ episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts — made me long for someone to write an occult history of the supermarket.

Close-up of man's face partially submerged in water.

There’s a striking lack of time given over to alternative, scientific, explanations for strange phenomena here, but then that was the point. Fanthorpe’s infectious sense of fun comes through throughout the series, whether being enthusiastically licked by puppies or enjoying an end-of-show sing-along. What is often interesting is how the topics covered compared to real-life events — such as the veneration of ‘Emily the sacred cow’ in the USA around the same time as the BSE crisis was gripping the UK. Although much of what Fortean TV covered will perhaps have limited novelty for viewers brought up on a diet of Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, it remains a key piece of late 20th-century pop culture: engaging and wide-ranging, and never taking itself too seriously.

Sadly, at the time of writing Network DVD has gone into liquidation, following the death of Network founder Tim Beddows in late 2022. However, you can still pick up a copy of Fortean TV: The Complete Series at several other outlets.

Fortean TV: The Complete Series
3 DVD box
Network 2022

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